Monday, January 23, 2017

Reading Robert Kroetsch: New Essays on His Work!



Rejoice! There's a new collection of essays just now out on that great Canadian poet, novelist, and raconteur Robert Kroetsch.  A founder of boundary 2, a disruptor of established forms, a godfather to a literary movement in the Canadian west—he's a figure you'd love to get to know, and Nicole Markotic's book is a good way to get to know him.  I've contributed a little something, and not just because Kroetsch and I tipped a glass or two together in my student days.  Here's a bit of what I had to say:

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There’s another reason to think of Kroetsch as a postmodern poet, rather than a modern one, a reason having to do with tone.  While the generalization I’m about to make has the flaw of all generalizations (i.e., that it is full of holes and therefore untrue), I’m still making it: modernism is more serious and less funny than postmodernism.  I grant all your objections regarding specific texts, and yet I return to the generalization.  Wry as he can be, T.S. Eliot is more grave and less funny than Frank O’Hara.  While he’s not above jokes, Ezra Pound is more often dead serious than is John Ashbery.  And when Robert Kroetsch is meditating on the perspectival nature of truth, he’s less sublime, and funnier, than Wallace Stevens when Stevens does something similar.  I’m sure the model for Kroetsch’s “Sketches of a Lemon” is Stevens’ “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird,” but the tone is entirely different.  Here’s Stevens’ opening stanza:

Among twenty snowy mountains,
The only moving thing
Is the eye of a blackbird. (58)

This is straight-up Kantian sublimity: the little living eye comprehends the huge, rugged world that so exceeds it in scale and in grandeur that it renders the bird’s eye insignificant—except for the fact that the little eye comprehends the vastness.  Here, by contrast, is the opening of Kroetsch’s series of lemon sketches:

A lemon is almost round.
Some lemons are almost round.
A lemon is not round.

So much for that. (76)

There’s a skepticism about our ability to intellectually frame the world here—it’s The Stone Hammer Poems again, or The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge—but there’s also a kind of philosophical pratfall.  The poem is full of this sort of thing: it's a self-deflating comic text that also has something serious to say about how intellectual frames fail, or about how narratives and descriptions end up mutating into something other than what they were initially meant to be.  Something like that happens in the following passage (“Smaro” is the name of the poet’s wife):

Sketches, I reminded myself,
not of a pear,
nor of an apple,
nor of a peach,
nor of a banana
(though the colour
raises questions)
nor of a nectarine,
nor, for that matter,
of a pomegranate,
nor of three cherries,
their stems joined,
nor of a plum,
nor of an apricot,
nor of the usual
bunch of grapes,
fresh from the vine,
just harvested,
glistening with dew—

Smaro, I called,
I’m hungry. (76)

What began as a kind of attempt at negative definition, doomed to a seemingly infinite series of specifications, suddenly warps, and we see that all along, without our knowledge, the list or catalog had been functioning in ways we hadn’t suspected, inciting the appetites rather than providing definition.  A hidden subordinate function unexpectedly becomes the dominant function of the list, and the sentence lurches jarringly in a new direction.  I remember reading this poem to the woman who would become my wife, and how much she liked it.  But it wasn’t her favorite section of the poem.  This was:

poem for a child who has just bit into
a halved lemon that has just been squeezed

see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you,
see, what did I tell you, see,
what did I tell you, see, what
did I tell you, see, what did
I tell you, see, what did I
tell you, see, what did I tell
you, see, what did I tell you

One could, of course, go on. (80)


If straight-up sublimity lies a bit beyond Kroetsch’s range, something like this lies a bit beyond Wallace Stevens, and I think the difference is generational, the modern vs. the postmodern poet.

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